Two hundred and twenty-four years ago, America’s first President, George Washington, published a farewell address that has endured as one of the most prophetic warnings from history of the dangerous of divisiveness, loyalty to party over nation, and the influence of foreign powers in American domestic affairs.
As a journalism major and political science minor, and a student of history, I have been exposed to some of the best that has been thought and written. But no letter or speech has lingered in my mind like Washington’s powerful warning against factionalism, political tribalism and corruption—because everything Washington warned us about has come to pass.
“You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together,” he wrote. “The Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes … Your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty [and] the love of the one ought to endear you to the preservation of the other.”
Compare this with America in 2020, which so often feels like two completely different countries moving in opposite directions, with different priorities, interests and even moralities, working from different sets of facts and assumptions, and with completely different visions of what the ideal society should look like.
Part of the problem is that Americans still relate to one another in terms of the two main political parties. Washington said that citizens who vote for party over country would slip into a “spirit of revenge,” and that the politicians who would benefit would be “ambitious” and “unprincipled” swindlers who would snatch and then destroy the instruments and engines of government.
Can anyone claim this has not come to pass? Even though some of those old categories—“left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative,”—are dissolving, and no longer useful ways to think about our differences, it seems as though all of society’s institutions are still organized along Democrat-Republican lines. And just look at the sort of elected official we’re getting as a result.
Washington’s third warning is his most important—but it’s one everyone in politics today has forgotten. Foreign influence and corruption are everywhere in American politics. Sometimes they take the form of deceptions and illusions, such as the Democrat obsession with the Russian collusion hoax. Other times, the corruption is very real. Just look at Hunter Biden.
Washington believed that America should keep its distance from internecine quarrels in European countries. He would have been horrified to see America, a few short centuries later, appointing itself World Police, and wading into every Middle Eastern country and conflict, sacrificing its children in endless, and endlessly expensive, foreign wars.
Should it surprise us that these warnings have been completely ignored by our elected representatives? I think so. It’s not as though these texts are lost to history. In fact, since the Civil War, a member of the U.S. Senate has read Washington’s farewell address out in full every year, with the duty alternating between the two major parties.
The first national politician in a century to achieve great success without paying lip service to either party was Donald Trump, and I have taken great inspiration from our President. When I decided to run for office, it wasn’t out of fealty to the Republican Party, although I’m grateful to many in that party for their assistance and support. It was because I see things desperately wrong with our country that I believe I can help to fix.
As politicians, I believe we need a lot more of the kind of brave selflessness and courage that President Trump has shown if we are to transcend the self-imposed boundaries of partisan rancor and once again focus our efforts on serving the people. For an example, we can again look to Washington.
George Washington didn’t have to step aside in 1796.
He didn’t need to write that farewell address at all. But he chose to establish the precedent, later enshrined in the Twenty-Second Amendment, that Presidents would serve only two terms, because he feared that otherwise the presidency might come to be regarded as a lifetime appointment, more like a monarchy, or the papacy.
It was a selfless decision, made for the good of the country, and somewhat contrary to his own interests. It is hard to imagine any elected politician making that same choice today—a hint of how far our politics has fallen since those early days of the Republic. To fix our politics, we need to start electing people motivated by sincere, urgent and longstanding conviction.
They’re out there. You just have to look for them, ignore the naysayers, take a chance on their occasional political inexperience—and summon courage enough to vote for them on election day. I aspire to be just such a politician, driven by a commitment to principle and not a self-serving dependence on party.
With less than a month to go until elections are decided, I hope the voters in Florida’s twenty-first district, and across America, stop to read Washington’s words before they cast their votes. It’s the only way our government will remain of the people, by the people and for the people.